When Memory Becomes Our Master
Nobel winning psychologist and economist Daniel Kahneman tells this story.
A man is listening to a symphony, and it’s glorious. Three movements that build toward a brilliant climax. And then, just as the symphony is ending there is a horrid screeching sound. “It ruined the whole thing,” the man says. “Wiped out the whole experience.”
Kahneman points out that, of course, the whole experience wasn’t ruined. The man had had nearly twenty minutes of bliss. Yet a few seconds of painful discord became the “whole” of the experience; all that came before was eliminated.
Each of us, says Kahneman, has an “experiencing self” and a “remembering self.” The experiencing self lives in the present, knows whatever is happening now. The remembering self is the part of us that evaluates our past experiences and maintains the story of our lives. It does this by pulling certain moments from any particular event or happening and creating the memory after the actual experience.
So, in the case of the ruined symphony, the one who has the privilege of declaring the whole adventure a disaster is the remembering self.
When I heard the symphony story, I immediately thought of a Maine summer vacation where everything went splendidly until the last day. When we checked out of the rental, the owner was angry that one of the kids had gotten ink on a white bed spread. That became, in our telling, the vacation from hell.
I recalled certain relationships that were beautiful for years, and then ended on some unfortunate note—how I tended to see the whole relationship as bad. I thought of jobs that were filled with years of delight and fulfillment but remembered mostly for some falling out or senseless offense.
The reason our remembering self has the power to define our happiness and joy is that we invest so little in our experiencing self. The thousands of present-moments that fill our days are not really allowed to impress themselves on our hearts and minds. They disappear unnoticed. When the remembering tyrant creates a “memory” that disposes of real moments of joy, laughter, love—even pain and struggle that were critical to our growth and maturation—we stand down. We don’t stick up for ourselves. We don’t correct the record.
This is why it is so important to wake up. And stay awake. It’s why we need some daily prayer practice that draws us into the Now. If we can sink deeply into our daily experiences, let them imprint indelibly, we can tell the memory tyrant to take a break. We don’t need him to slap a label on what just happened. We know what we know.